Ironman Triathlon Negative-Split Strategy

author : ytriguy
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Often it makes sense to race slower in order to finish faster and at the same time have a more enjoyable Ironman Triathlon experience.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of negative split  pacing in an endurance race, it basically refers to running the second half of an event faster than the first.

For example it you were to run a 4-hour marathon and the first 13.1 miles took you 2:02 and the second 13.1 miles took you 1:58 than you ran a negative split marathon.

There are several very good reasons why this strategy would be very beneficial to Ironman triathletes. This is especially true for the novice Ironman and those who have done a few Ironman races and hit the invisible wall big time somewhere late in the bike or at some point in the marathon.

The concept that you begin each discipline in the Ironman slow and easy and well within your capability is most important to grasp and not so much that you split the swim, bike, and run into equal halves.

I will use the Ironman Canada course as an example.

It you take 3000-plus rested, emotionally charged people who have trained for months or perhaps years to be standing on the fittest piece of real estate in the world at that particular moment you are sure to have heart-rates rocketing out of control.

Even before the race has begun those with high heart-rates are putting themselves at a serious disadvantage. An out-of-control heart-rate is a great way to begin burning off valuable energy that I can guarantee will desperately be needed later in the day.

It you do not have a race strategy in place and the discipline to stay with it, chances are that when the gun sounds you are going to get caught up in the testosterone-charged atmosphere and go out way too fast.

However if you adopt the negative-split strategy and know long before the race starts that you have a plan in place and will be going out nice and easy with a controlled heart-rate you are much less likely to get caught up in the emotion of the moment.

The Ironman Swim

When the cannon sounds to begin the swim, the trick is to go out even slower than you are capable of and let your body settle into a controlled rhythm that is encouraged by your long, slow, swim stroke. If you combine this with taking an outside line away from the more congested traffic areas you will have a perfect start to your Ironman.

Ironman Canada consists of two right-hand turns. The first leg is 1612 meters, the second 450 meters, and the last leg is 1800 meters.

I would suggest waiting until just after the second turn before picking up your pace a little. If you have controlled your emotions and stuck to the plan to swim the first half or more of the race well within your ability range, then you should be feeling really great as you make the final turn.  As you pick up speed others will be slowing down and in many cases struggling and already burning off massive amounts of energy.

Keep in mind that even though you are picking up the pace a little and swimming the last 1800 meters at a faster pace than the first two legs, you are still not crossing the line into anaerobic territory but remain in your aerobic zone.

The Ironman Bike

About the first five times I did Ironman Canada I fell into the same trap. I would get on that bike and pedal like hell until I simply ran out of gas and hit the wall. From there the rest of the race was a death march.

Why did I do it? Partly because I never had any race plan in place to start with, but mostly because it was what everyone else was doing.

If you adopt the negative-spit strategy you will know months before the race begins that you will not be falling into that same trap. You will leave that bike transition area calm, cool, and collected and once again will bike at a pace that you can easily maintain and at the same time keeping your heart-rate well in check.

You will not worry about the hundreds of bikes blowing by you because ultimately you will be catching the majority of those same people later on in the bike or perhaps on the marathon course.

After you finish the long climb up Richter's Pass and navigate across the rolling hills behind the pass you will come to a nice long flat stretch before the Cawston out-and-back. This is the ideal time to settle into a comfortable spin and perhaps begin to pick up the pace a little. Although you may be tired you will be far better off than if you gone out too fast and had nothing left in the tank.

At this point you should feel pretty good about yourself. You had a great controlled swim and you are through the worst of the bike and even the Yellow Lake Hill will not seem quite so daunting to you.

As you make the right hand turn to begin the Cawston out-and-back and towards the special needs pickup you will most likely begin to notice something happening with more and more frequency. You will be passing people who are running out of gas. Yes, some of those same people who went blowing by you way back at the bike start in town.

Once you leave the out-and-back and are on the main highway toward Yellow Lake spin at a rate that still may be faster than what you started with, but is still within your ability. Take your time up the Yellow Lake Hill and go into a good tuck for the free ride down.

If you feel great at the bottom of the hill, that is the time to pick up the pace if it feels okay with you. There is a good chance that at this stage you will be cycling as fast or faster than you were in the very beginning. Either way, you have managed the bike course brilliantly and will not be going into the marathon completely out of energy.

The Ironman Marathon

Most people might say, "I only have one speed in the marathon and that's dead slow!"

There is nothing wrong with that. Just do what you can. Run as much as you can early on because this will take a huge chunk out of those early kilometers. Walk the aid stations and run the best you can in between them if you don't feel you can run from start to finish. That's a good strategy.

If you are an exceptional runner and feel strong and have no problem running than once again run easily and well within your ability. You have managed your race very well up to this point and will have 80% more energy than all those people on the marathon course who you continue to pass by the dozens and perhaps hundreds.

If you feel great and have reached the run turn-around at Christie Beach than this is without a doubt the place to go for it. If you are trying to do well in your age-group or perhaps to qualify for Kona, this is the best place to put the pedal to the metal.

If you have done everything right up to this point than running a negative-split in the marathon could well be what makes all the difference in you reaching your Ironman triathlon goal.

Without a sound strategy going into the race you could well be walking most of the marathon and believe me, you don't want to go there.

If you have used this strategy from the beginning until the marathon course and are still struggling a bit, just imagine what shape you would be in if you had raced out of control from the beginning. Either way you will come out ahead by adopting the negative-spit philosophy.

The Five Main Benefits to a Negative Split Strategy

1) You run your own race: From beginning to end you are the master of your own fate as you do not let race circumstances or those around you dictate how you run your race. You know before the gun goes off what your strategy is going to be and develop the self-discipline to not deviate from it.

2) You burn fat for fuel:  By racing well within your ability and keeping your heart-rate in check from the minute the swim starts you are burning fat for fuel as opposed to limited stores of glycogen. It is racing out of control that uses up glycogen far to quickly and results in hitting the wall long before the race is over.

3) You enjoy the Ironman experience a lot more:  Many people get the idea in their head that being in the death march and suffering out on the Ironman marathon course is unavoidable and is all part of the race. By using the negative-split strategy you will no doubt enjoy the Ironman experience a lot more and will suffer far less.

4) The emotional and psychological advantage:  In about my seventh try at Ironman Canada I finally got it right and began to count the people I passed on the marathon course. I gave up after over 300 of them as there were so many it was a chore to count them all. I can't even put into words what an advantage it is to manage the Ironman properly and pass people in all three disciplines. It is a huge lift and inspires you do keep right on going all the way to the finish line.

5) Have your best possible Finish time: You may be doing your first, third or seventh Ironman, but adopting this much wiser way of tackling the Ironman might well be the answer to having your best possible Ironman finish time result.

**I used Ironman Canada as an example but using a negative-split strategy will work for any Ironman Triathlon in the world.

All you have to do is be sure and start out easy and within the limits of your ability and control your own destiny from the minute the race starts. You can decide by looking at the course maps of your particular Ironman exactly where you might begin to pick up the pace in the swim, bike, and run.

Ray hasn't stopped since he ran his first marathon in 1977. He went on to run over 35 marathons, two 50-mile races, countless 10k races, and took part in 14 Ironman Triathlons beginning with Ironman Hawaii in 1984. He has also authored five triathlon related books and is now bringing together a passionate community of triathletes.


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date: June 23, 2012


Enjoy writing and passing on what I have learned over the years to those new to the Ironman Triathlon.In the course of my 25 year endurance career I completed 11 Ironman races, over 30 marathons, two 50-mile races, and probably over 100 10k races.


Enjoy writing and passing on what I have learned over the years to those new to the Ironman Triathlon.In the course of my 25 year endurance career I completed 11 Ironman races, over 30 marathons, two 50-mile races, and probably over 100 10k races.

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